LOS ANGELES (AP) - After a blustery few days of torrential downpours, Hollywood appears ready for smooth sailing at the Academy Awards. But things got off to a soggy start on Sunday morning when a passing shower dampened portions of the red carpet that had been uncovered in anticipation of clearing skies.

The 86th annual Oscars will begin with late-afternoon arrivals at the Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard before the three and a half-hour ceremony starts at 8:30 p.m. EST.

Unlike the stormy hosting of Seth MacFarlane last year, this Oscar show with host Ellen DeGeneres has a deliberately safe vibe of cheery song-and-dance.

The nimble and amiable DeGeneres is expected to return the broadcast to more traditional territory. Many of the night s biggest categories, too, seem to hold little chance for surprise.

The well-established favorites include Matthew McConaughey, Cate Blanchett, Lupita Nyong o and Jared Leto. Each comes into Oscar Sunday having won a parade of awards over the last few months, including honors at Saturday s Spirit Awards.

The night s biggest question mark won t come until the very end. The historical drama 12 Years a Slave, the 3-D space spectacle Gravity and the con-artist caper American Hustle are vying for best picture in the night s closest contest.

Gravity is expected to lead the ceremony in total awards, cleaning up in technical categories like visual effects and cinematography. Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron is considered a lock for best director for seamlessly marshalling new digital technology to render the lost-in-space drama. He would be the first Latino to win the category.

While the global hit easily topped the other eight best-picture nominees at the box office, the lower budget, less widely seen 12 Years a Slave is believed to have a narrow edge for the academy s top honor.

Though voters last year chose entertainment over history lesson (Ben Affleck s Argo over Steven Spielberg s Lincoln ), many see Steve McQueen s brutal adaptation of Solomon Northup s memoir as a landmark film difficult to watch but impossible to overlook.

ABC, which is telecasting the ceremony, hopes the drama of the best-picture race will be enough to entice viewers. The show last year drew an audience of 40.3 million, up from 39.3 million the year before when the silent-film ode The Artist won best picture.

Associated Press writer Edwin Tamara contributed to this report.

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